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February 20, 2020

The ucisa Capability Model and Digital Transformation

Summary: As part of digital transformation, the business side of your institution and the Information Technology (IT) department will need to fully partner in order to align. Alignment occurs when there is clear understanding of what the institution does or needs to do and how this is addressed by the supporting enterprise architecture. This understanding, expressed in terms of capabilities, becomes the basis of how to plan the investment required to achieve your institution’s digital strategy. Higher Digital is using business capabilities as the lingua franca to help institutions with their digital strategy.

In today’s competitive higher education market, institutions are either gaining market share due to a successful digital strategy and execution or losing ground due to insufficiently prioritised capabilities and/or not making the right impact

We’re in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The higher education market is facing significant competition, and institutions are either a) gaining market share due to a successful digital strategy and execution, or b) losing ground due to insufficiently prioritised capabilities and/or not making the right impact. What facilitates an effective partnership between the business and IT that can smooth the path to a successful digital strategy?

Let’s start by looking at business capabilities and how they can be used. Ross, Weil and Robertson assert that in order to succeed, an organisation needs to first create a “foundation that supports its strategy.” And they define such a “foundation for execution” as the “IT infrastructure and digitized business processing automating core capabilities”.1 So, what is a (business) capability? Ulrich Homann defines it as follows: “A business capability is a particular ability or capacity that a business may possess or exchange to achieve a specific purpose or outcome”.2 Business capabilities are fully applicable to higher education, which has been markedly demonstrated by the awesome body of work created in the UK by ucisa.

Ucisa, the member-led professional body for digital practitioners in education, has created the UK Higher Education Capability Model, which it defines as the set of capabilities an institution requires to execute its business model or fulfil its mission. The capability model was created to deliver the following benefits:

  • Promote Enterprise Architecture (EA) within the HE sector through use of tangible assets;
  • Promote collaboration and efficiency through reusable models;
  • Help ‘jump-start’ EA practices within the sector;
  • Create a common business language both within organisations and the sector;
  • Promote joined up strategic thinking – The BIG Picture;
  • Inform decision making for prioritisation and investment;
  • Connect IT to the business.3

Forrester echoes the benefits derived from using capability models. “These models can act as a ‘Rosetta Stone’ that provides the translation between business concerns and IT concerns. Tying IT strategies, projects, and costs to business capabilities offers a view of IT that resonates with business executives.”4

The benefits of using capability models cited by Forrester line up nicely with those outlined by ucisa for the higher education space – alignment, partnership, the use of a common language, and informed decision-making for prioritisation and investment – making them key to influencing and supporting a successful digital strategy.

Whilst the core capabilities identified in the ucisa model are relatively stable, there is a need for your institution to prioritise appropriately in order to execute your Digital Strategy. Not least because higher education is facing unprecedented change arising from the Fourth Industrial Revolution with technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and Automation seriously impacting the workforce of today.

Vinous Ali, head of policy at TechUK (the UK body representing the technology industry), stated to the BBC in 2019 that “the fact is no job is likely to remain untouched by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, so we will all need to learn new skills.”5

A recent Forrester report, The Future of Work, reaffirms this: “As much as companies must become learning institutions, so must employees become learners — learning core skills, adapting to new working models, and understanding what it means to be ready and fit for the future, maximizing their Robotics Quotient.”6

Professional development and lifelong learning will be the norm, and your HE institution must take on this challenge or lose ground to existing competitors and new entrants. Capabilities such as Student Attraction & Recruitment, Student Admission Management, Student Financial Administration and Commercial Activities will require renewed inspection and investment, becoming an important part of your institution’s digital strategy. WIRED recently highlighted the importance of lifelong learning to universities: “By offering students the opportunity to return throughout their careers, universities can leverage their greatest asset – their brand.”7

How can Higher Digital help you and how are we using the Capability model?

Building a (digital) strategic plan with the right investment priorities to embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution requires great time and effort when you’re already stretched. Higher Digital provides affordable, rapid, and flexible custom solutions to help develop a powerful and competitive digital strategy.

We start by utilising our (SEA)RESULTS® Digital Transformation Management (DTM) Platform, which maps your institutions’ digital transformation progress by assessing capabilities, then compares your progress with other institutions and delivers results faster and for less investment than traditional consulting methods. The Initial assessment provides expert insight into your operations, organisation, and technology, while also recommending capabilities that require review and advice to help you achieve a more impactful digital strategy, while reinforcing the need for a strong connection between IT and business functions.

Our insight will highlight potential new ways of doing business while adhering to your educational mission. We will make recommendations in the area of students; for example, types of students, how you recruit students, how frequently you admit students, and for what duration. Furthermore, the push for continuing professional development will pave the way for new means for students to pay for their educations, including subscription-like business models. All such insights and recommendations will help you shape your Digital Strategy.

1 Jeanne W. Ross, Peter Weill, and David C. Robertson, Enterprise Architecture as Strategy, Creating a Foundation for Business Execution, Harvard Business School Press, 2006, Chapter 1 (pp. 4-5).

2 Ulrich Homann, A Business-Oriented Foundation for Service Orientation, Microsoft White Paper, February 2006.

3 ucisa, UK HE Capability Model,, 2019.

4 Jeff Scott, Alex Cullen, and Mimi An, Business Capabilities Provide the Rosetta Stone for Business-IT Alignment, Forrester, 6 July 2009.

6 UK Workers Who Lose Jobs to AI Will Be Retrained, BBC, 18 July 2019,

6 The Future of Work, Forrester, June, 2019,“.

7 Heather Emerson, “The Four-Year University Model Needs a Lifelong Learning Overhaul”, WIRED, 7 February 2020,

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